New government stats show that councils are making drastic cuts to housing services, which includes support for homeless people. Last year budgets for housing services were reduced by 8%, more than any other council area. This entails cuts to services that should help house homeless households, provide advice and support to people who aren’t eligible for re-housing, and help improve conditions in the private rented sector.
Councils are facing a mammoth challenge. More and more people need their bins emptying and their roads sweeping. More people need housing, educating and caring for when they get old. Vulnerable adults and children need to be cared for. Public health needs to be promoted. And that’s all before we’ve started talking about pot-holes.
At the same time, councils are being told to meet this demand with less government money. One London council has drafted what it poetically calls it’s ‘graph of doom’. It shows that if the council continues to provide its current services in the same way, it will go bankrupt by 2025.
So councils have had to make difficult decisions. This includes cutting back-office functions, and reducing services down to ‘efficient statutory minimum’ – in other words, which services do they have a legal duty to operate, and which ones can be shut down. Other approaches to saving money have included sharing services with neighbouring local authorities, outsourcing services to other sectors, and encouraging local, voluntary groups to run non-statutory council services – for example, park maintenance or certain libraries.
What next for councils – and of course the people they help? They have already reduced expenditure to key statutory services and this will have to continue if they are to meet their saving targets. The graph below shows that over the past five years housing services (not including funding for council housing) have borne the brunt of council cuts, with budgets being reduced 23% since 2010. This is more than any other council service – more than the likes of education, highways and transport and administration – except for planning and development, which is also key to helping build the homes the country needs.
Why should we be concerned about this? Housing services are responsible for a large number of important issues, from housing homeless households and making sure that private rented sector housing is safe to live in, to helping people with a disability or a medical condition find a home that is right for them.
And at the same time, demand for these vital services is growing. The number of families presenting and being accepted as being made homeless is on the increase, and has been for some time. The private rented sector is growing, and with it come an increasing number of problems. The loss of a home in the private rented sector is now the leading cause of homelessness, while enforcement activities to improve conditions is patchy across the country.
Councils have a duty to house homeless households that are considered ‘priority-need’; but many households only get basic advice and support to find their own accommodation. Cuts to frontline housing services mean that even this advice and support is threadbare, or in some cases has been stopped entirely. Even priority need households are often not getting the support they need. For example we hear all the time from households who are being turned away by their local council when they are threatened with homelessness, or not given the correct level of assistance when applying for support.
Although most powers under housing services are statutory, which means they can’t be lost entirely, we are concerned that if councils continue to reduce their budgets then their ability to tackle homelessness and find people safe and secure homes will also diminish.
The government have made certain pots of money available to help councils meet this challenge, for example the homeless prevention grant. But some of this money isn’t ring-fenced, so councils can ultimately determine how the money is spent – and it doesn’t need to be on housing and homelessness. As the overall money from the government shrinks, the temptation for councils to use funding like the homeless prevention grant on more expensive services – for example, social care – may be too great.
So what do we need to see happen to protect housing services? The evidence for demand for this service is clear, most of all through the increase in homelessness. In the short term, the government must recognise that councils are struggling to deal with this demand, and increase ring-fenced funding to help deal with the problem.
Councils themselves need to prioritise housing services. While councils are hamstrung by a shortage of affordable housing, they still have a duty to assist all homeless households who approach them for help. This is being undermined by decisions to constantly shrink housing services.
But in the long term the government needs to tackle this problem head-on, which means building more affordable homes, and improving safety and security in the private rented sector.